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China's premier met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on Sunday at the start of a state visit, amid signs the North may be willing to restart talks over its nuclear weapons programs.
Kim greeted Premier Wen Jiabao earlier in the day at Pyongyang's airport, a rare honor for a non-head of state and an indication that Kim remains firmly in charge despite recent reports of failing health. The two men embraced on a red carpet laid out on the tarmac.
Wen's three-day visit is being scrutinized for any further indication that North Korea is willing to re-engage with its negotiating partners after boycotting talks for months while threatening nuclear war and conducting nuclear and missile tests.
No details of discussions between Wen and Kim were released.
Kim has reportedly expressed a willingness to engage in "bilateral and multilateral talks," although it's unclear if that indicates a willingness to rejoin the stalled six-nation discussions.
However, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said the premier raised the issue of denuclearization in a meeting with North Korean Prime Minister Kim Yong Il, telling him a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula was in everyone's best interests.
A commitment made to Wen would be a major sign of respect for China, the most important source of economic aid and diplomatic support for the North's reclusive communist regime. Beijing has hosted the stalled six-nation nuclear disarmament talks that also involve the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Russia, and continues to promote them as the best forum for dealing with the issue.
Exclusive footage provided by Associated Press Television News showed the welcoming ceremony for Wen, with Kim wearing his trademark sunglasses and brown leisure suit. Wen was shown leaving in a limousine motorcade, while a crowd of North Korean greeters shouted slogans.
CCTV reported he later visited the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, where the embalmed body of North Korea's founder and Kim's Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung, lies.
Wen is leading a delegation that includes Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei - China's top envoy on North Korean issues - along with a top general, Liu Zhenqi, and other high-ranking officials.
China's Foreign Ministry has said Wen will meet with top North Korean leaders and attend events commemorating 60 years of diplomatic ties, as well as oversee the signing of agreements in the areas of economy, trade, tourism and education. Xinhua said the two leaders presided Sunday over the signing of a series of agreements.
Kim's decision to greet Wen at the airport likely indicates he plans to commit to North Korea's return to the six-nation talks, said Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea expert at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea.
In return, China will likely offer new economic aid, Paik said.
"North Korea has found that there is need to stabilize the situation now, as it has done everything it wanted to do, such as a nuclear test," Paik said. "China would also consider getting North Korea to rejoin the six-party talks its diplomatic achievement."
Under the six-nation framework, North Korea pledged in September 2005 to dismantle its nuclear programs in exchange for pledges of energy assistance and diplomatic concessions.
Progress has been bumpy, and North Korea walked away from the talks entirely in April to protest world criticism of a rocket launch. In May it further escalated tensions by conducting a nuclear test, drawing a rebuke from Beijing and sanctions from the United Nations.
Pyongyang has in recent weeks taken a more conciliatory approach, most recently allowing meetings of family members separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
North Korean state media on Sunday said Wen's visit illustrates the importance China places on its ties with the North, a reflection of Pyongyang's attempts to establish some form of face-saving parity in its dealings with its giant neighbor.
"Respectable comrade Wen Jiabao's visit to our country this time has a huge meaning in consideration of its historical timing and political significance," the North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in an editorial.
Washington is applying increasing economic pressure on the North's foreign trade, targeting private banks that might have North Korean ties. U.S. officials hope to block money that could be used for missiles and nuclear bombs and, ultimately, to drive North Korea back to disarmament talks.
The U.S. administration said last month it and its top Asian allies had agreed that direct U.S.-North Korean talks may be the best way to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.
But the officials also suggested that China needs to lay more groundwork before President Barack Obama would decide to send his special North Korea envoy, Stephen Bosworth, to Pyongyang.
This program aired on October 4, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.
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